I am an invisible man… It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. … And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish…
– Prologue to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity politics.
I used to be against identity politics. I thought that class consciousness was the most important thing because it was the common denominator of oppression and liberation. I still think that. But I no longer think identity politics distracts from that.
I want to explain how this change of heart came about by reflecting on my own experience as someone who feels alienated from their working-class background.
WHAT BEING ‘WORKING-CLASS’ MEANS TO ME
Before we go any further, let me unpack my ‘working-classness’.
My mum raised me and my brother herself. She left school with a couple of O-levels. She recently told me that, as a kid, she never dreamed of growing up to be anything; I found that heartbreaking to hear, given how much wasted intelligence she has. When she fell pregnant with me at 22, my dad skidaddled. For most of her adult life, she’s suffered from manic depression, as well as addiction to drugs and alcohol.
For most of my childhood, she worked low-paid jobs in retail and hospitality. We were never under any illusion that money was tight. It was drilled into us at every opportunity that we were ‘one of the poorest families in the country’ (I remember her using those exact words repeatedly).
In practice, this meant: flat-hopping every other year; no paid school trips; two holidays abroad before I turned twenty; the same own-brand Economy yogurts every night (I’ll stop before I go full Mike Leigh). In countless small ways that added up to something like background radiation, it meant: we are just managing to get by; we could run out of money; we could lose our home; you mustn’t forget you are poorer than other kids; you must claim everything you’re entitled to. Later, it meant mum stealing money from our bedrooms (but that’s a different story).
Like I said, it’s a low-level atmospheric anxiety that you don’t just shake off when you leave home. It’s seeped into you. To this day, relatively small amounts of money exert a weird power over me: a mix of fear and ecstasy. Just having money makes me nervous because I feel it will be taken away at any moment.
I used to say that I was ‘economically working-class and culturally middle-class’ (bohemian). But that wasn’t true. What did I imagine this ‘bohemianism’ consist of? Broadsheets on Sundays; a bookcase in the living room (hardly a culture of reading); vegetarianism; films with subtitles; anti-establishment instincts; and liberal attitudes to…well, most things.
In actual fact, I think my upbringing was working-class in every sense. The bohemian elements were things I recognised from my Grammar School peer group and projected onto my mum; I made an idealised version of her to avoid confronting how different my life was from my friends’. She is bohemian in a manner of speaking, but my upbringing wasn’t – we didn’t go to museums, plays, galleries, etc. Her destructive relationships with lovers/substances, and evening jobs, got in the way. So, without wanting to sound too sorry for myself, my home life was impoverished financially and culturally.
That isn’t to say that she wasn’t an amazing mum in so many other ways. She has always, always believed that I can achieve anything I put my mind to (although, as I’ll try to explain later, that too has unintended consequences). And she’s a funny, compassionate role model (when she’s able to be; mental illness is what it is).
WHY I WAS TOO GOOD AT PRETENDING TO BE A NICE MIDDLE-CLASS BOY
Shortly after I graduated, I attended the London Book Fair. I didn’t live in London at the time, so had to spend the night on an acquaintance’s sofa. I’d met him only once or twice before, through a mutual friend. That night, we fell to discussing our childhoods, and I’ll never forget him saying: “But I thought you were just a nice middle-class boy!”
I was trapped behind a mask of my own making, though still only dimly aware of it. Where did this mask come from?
Well, resentment at home discomforts, and envy of my middle-class friends with their nice middle-class families, music lessons and permanent homes. I saw no hope, no prospects, no role models in the other direction. Plus education was a kind of surrogate parent and source of self-esteem, with its attendant middle-class norms. All this created a young man who, encountering the phrase ‘social climber’ for the first time in An Inspector Calls, could only see a term of praise.
Now, the problem with pretending to be middle-class is that, if you wish to remain true to yourself and your actual experience of the world, it will only get you so far. I can give a performance that is just about convincing enough for others, but not to me. I am actually too preoccupied with managing the performance to be able to let go of myself – which, to my mind, is the mark of a convincing performance of privilege.
Another effect of all this was that I never asked for help when I needed it – and, usually, wasn’t aware that I needed help until it was too late. School and university authorities were either ‘class-blind’ or bought into my performance anyway. In any case, I’d have given short shrift to any ‘special treatment.’
Unfortunately, I did need help – or at least, a warning from someone I would’ve taken seriously -because I was very, very poor, and pretty clueless, in a country with entrenched pockets of social immobility.
THE SINKHOLE YEARS: 2011-13
If you’re asking: but what of identity politics? Please bear with me. I’m getting to that. (Don’t tell me you weren’t expecting a lengthy narcissistic diversion in an essay about identity politics.)
My problem isn’t that I’m working-class but that nobody told me that’s what I was when I needed to hear it and really understand it. In my teens, I thought I’d left all that behind. I had to figure out for myself that that wasn’t true, and it was rather too late by then. Nevertheless, because I got into Oxford and taught myself to speak like a Radio 4 presenter, people assumed I was “a nice middle class boy” with contacts and a nest egg and a tacit understanding of how things get done.
Which I didn’t. But it felt as if that performance was all I had going. As if anything I did to jeopardise that veneer would lose me everything I’d achieved. Everything felt transient; that’s part of what working-classness means to me, a feeling of everything just passing through.
At Oxford I had this sense of being more academic than many of my peers. I seemed to read more, put more effort into my essays. I was a tutor’s pet. I’d started university with my sights set on a political career, but I found student politics disenchanting. Careerism seemed to take precedence over big ideas. It wasn’t a career for me. So I drifted towards academia instead.
But all through university I spared no thought for careers advisors or job fairs. I assumed these were for people who wanted to work for corporations, and I knew nothing about corporations. The business world was utterly alien to me. I don’t recall my tutors ever discussing careers with me either, not once in three years, which is rather shocking now that I think of it.
Anyway, while money had been tight, I never really worried about my student debt or about whether I’d be able to pay for my education – up to this point. My last year was all about extracurricular activities and finals prep. When I applied for a masters, my only worries were about my personal statement. I received an offer to study the course of my dreams at LSE. Without funding.
For a couple of months, I blithely assumed there was some pot of money for someone like me somewhere. A government scheme or a special bank loan or…something. There must be; there’d always been before.
When the penny dropped that there was no equivalent of an undergrad loan for poor postgrads, I wrote applications to charitable trusts and bursaries, and applied for a bank loan, but to no avail. I didn’t have the right credit record to qualify for a Career and Development Loan (having, you know, spent what money I had over the last three years).
I managed to get my place deferred. I thought if I spent a year working I might be able to save enough to qualify for a bank loan. Of course, most graduate jobs require extensive unpaid internships or prior experience. So none of that. Instead, I lied about my education on my CV and spent a year working as a: zero-hours cleaner (‘cleaning operative’); restaurant washer-upper (‘kitchen assistant’); intern in a job centre; Asda temp/shelf-shunter (‘seasonal customer services assistant’); and barman/usher, signing on as and when. When I couldn’t save enough, it became two years. It was wretched. I was squandering my potential – whatever that was.
(It maddens me now to think that I could have moved to London and scraped it together as a tutor, but I hadn’t a clue. Anyway, I saw no reason why I couldn’t take the same route as my peers. I was blind to the reasons.)
Finally, I realised I needed to break the cycle. I applied for Teach First and was thrilled to get a place. I was genuinely excited about teaching. It was a hugely rewarding and challenging four years of my life.
Yet right from the start of the six-week residential training course, I felt detached from these other shiny-faced teachers-to-be in a way I’d not felt before. I could no longer perform middle-classness comfortably. It’s hard to explain but I felt they’d come straight out of uni or another profession, and that what united them, and set them apart from me, was a common seamlessness about their lives. A kind of continuity; a feeling that things were continually getting better and would continue to do so.
I felt very old. Here were these people, most of them only a few years younger than me, talking about going into challenging schools and being inspirational heroes and transforming life chances and improving society. And I wanted to share in that optimism. But I couldn’t help my ambivalence about the social mobility agenda. Education alone isn’t enough, I felt: at least, that was my experience.
INTERSECTIONALITY AND CLASS IDENTITY
I can only make sense of my class identity when I see myself at the intersection of the working- and the middle-class. I don’t experience working-class disadvantage as a working-class person per se, but as someone whose working-class identity is hidden from view.
On the one hand, I’ve experienced being marginalised as a working-class person in middle-class ‘progressive’ spaces.
The decline of labourism and the growth of middle-class influence in left-wing movements is an oft-told story. It happened in the Labour Party and in sections of the far left. As a sometime participant in both, I’ve seen cliquey politics, with insular terminology, shared references and unexamined assumptions about political ends (the assumption of power or expressions of solidarity, with little in between).
Middle-class-dominated left-wing movements lacking authenticity tend to emphasise performance, which disadvantages anyone who hasn’t, so to speak, learned their lines and mastered the lingo. The subtle conformism this performativity breeds left me feeling unqualified to speak in situations where I knew full well that my opinions were no less valid than anyone else’s. By dint of their background, and the polished self-assurance that comes with being part of an in-group, others didn’t have this problem.
I’ve observed the same dynamic at work through my work in schools, volunteering, and at uni — the working-class politico who tries and fails to be fully included in a middle-class-dominated setting, and ends up shutting up. I felt invisible.
On the other hand, I’ve felt marginalised as someone with middle-class baggage in these same movements and organisations. There’s a lot I could say here, but just one example: last year I met a man at the BBC responsible for diversity in recruitment. When we discussed schemes to help outsiders get their foot in the door, he admitted to me that, as a working-class Oxford graduate, I was, in some senses, doubly screwed, because recruiters would jump to inaccurate assumptions based on my university. Which reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s line: ‘be careful who you pretend to be, because you are who you pretend to be.’
I gifted myself a ‘Radio 4 accent’ in an attempt to fit in at my grammar school, and doubled down on it at Oxford. I tried to adopt middle-class mannerisms to get on. As I have said, this performance blinded others – and me – to the underlying reality, the formative experiences and material structures that have made me who I am.
I quote Ellison again not to imply that our life experiences aren’t worlds apart, but because he makes this point so clear:
It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realisation everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!
This is not a comfortable thing to have to say, but…I wish someone had warned me how tough life was going to be for someone from my background. It needn’t have been about limiting my horizons. Instead, we worship at the shrine of social mobility. We try to make talented poor kids feel like they’re invincible, and sometimes we succeed; but this doesn’t mean that they will. A bit of class-consciousness-raising would’ve done me a world of good.
To sum up: I’m sidelined in middle-class groups that fetishise the working-class (often in proportion to their distance from it), because I do not appear to be working-class — and I feel marginalised within those groups because I am actually working-class.
IDENTITY POLITICS AND BEING INVISIBLE
Here is where I agree with people like Reni Eddo-Lodge: it hurts those who are different to act as if their difference doesn’t exist if (1) it does exist and (2) denying that it exists creates a false sense of security.
First, selective blindness to difference helps to blind those who are different to the fact of their difference. It’s a contagious form of blindness. Those who should be readying themselves to cope with the consequences of difference are blinded to problems awaiting them further down the road.
Later, when they’re confronted with a world that hasn’t been designed with their kind in mind, they’ll recognise their difference. At the same time, they’ll realise that everybody else is, and has been, in denial about it. Not only will other people not face their obstacles; they won’t even see that they’re there.
Perhaps they’ll even experience discrimination internally, as a form of madness. Like an imaginary enemy. Over time, a gulf opening up between their public and private worlds. The private world, without a shared language to articulate it, become an unshakeable object of shame.
Here’s the thing: the one who is different is made more different by the pretended erasure of difference. It becomes, for them, a constant question; what separates them from the public realm and an easy self-definition.
The label alienated from the working-class is inside me; it’s always been there, whether I’ve cared to see it or not. Identity politics didn’t put it there. And it’s not going anywhere in a hurry, even though I’m in no greater rush to label myself than the next person. But only by saying, ‘this is who I am and this is how I feel’ can I also say, ‘this is who I don’t want to be anymore and this is how I shouldn’t be made to feel.’
Identity politics, then, isn’t about wanting to hide behind a label or fetishising one aspect of identity. The point of exploring how class or gender is experienced differently is to make credible the search for an underlying shared experience. Material forces which tend to propagate intersectional identities also have a habit of rendering them invisible, from the subject and others. The old-left quest for a universalist identity has been eroded by the same forces that have spawned and submerged intersectional identities.
Eleanor Robertson makes this clear in a brilliant essay:
Crucially, we must understand that the content of identity politics in general and intersectionality in particular was not injected into radical movements from the outside. It is better viewed as a set of demands from inside, made by marginalised and ignored members of the working class at a time when the “traditional” left was in the wilderness.
These need not — should not — be conflicting projects. Recognising intersectional structures of oppression can be a first step towards rebuilding a vision of the common good. The ‘politics of recognition’ means recognising the barriers to a ‘politics of redistribution’. It’s not meant to be a substitute.
Contrary to critics of identity politics, such as Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, I’m all for a left-wing politics of the common good. But when he writes of identity politics that,
The main result has been to turn young people back on to themselves, rather than turning them outward towards the wider world they share with others. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it…
I think he misses that identity politics is a consequence of young people being turned in on themselves, not its cause. Engaging seriously with those consequences is necessary to understanding those ‘wider’ causes. Sure, many young people struggle to think about the common good in non-identity terms, but that’s what the struggle is for. It’s what identity politics, at its best, is supposed to be for.
Identity politics, as I understand it, only posits that oppressive social structures do a good enough job already of turning young people ‘back on themselves’. That’s certainly been my experience. I embrace identity politics to the extent that I think it’s good for people who share a difference (unfortunate phrasing, I know) to validate their difference. Once I know this thing exists, I can start to imagine a political solution; without that recognition, though, it continues to feel like some individual pathology. It’s like being stuck in purgatory.
Identity politics seems to me, potentially at least, to be the means to a more ambitious vision of politics. It’s a vehicle to get somewhere else, not a stopping point, a conversation opener not a shutting-down of debate. I’m tired of it being hijacked by liberals who wish to strip it of radical content and reduce it to ‘virtue signalling’, but I’m equally tired of lazy, knee-jerk dismissals from left and right alike.
I’ll end with a final quote from Eleanor Robertson:
The task at hand is to extend, deepen and radicalise people’s expressed dissatisfactions with life under capitalism in a way that shows the universal character of particularist grievances without falling into historical re-enactment.